Robert Emmet Meagher - 'Albert Camus and the Human Crisis'

Robert Emmet Meagher - 'Albert Camus and the Human Crisis'


The cover of Robert Emmet Meagher's *Albert Camus and the Human Crisis

Introduction: my misunderstanding Albert Camus

My first thoughts about Albert Camus were based in prejudice: I thought he looked the coolest from all existentialists (possible exception: Simone de Beauvoir) and it seemed he’d written a hard-to-get book, The Stranger.

I was wrong about everything, really.

First, Camus wasn’t cool. At least not in the sense that Anthony Bourdain defined cool:

“Simply put?” he said. “I am not cool. I have never been cool.” […] “Any notion or pretense of cool went out the window the second my daughter was born. Thank God.” In trying to dig into cool, Bourdain offered, “I think cool suggests the absence of caring,” echoing Dinerstein’s aestheticizing of detachment theory. But Bourdain saw a more nefarious aspect to it. “It’s an almost sociopathic state—the ability to not give a shit about anything . . . In my experience, people are foolishly attracted to people who know what they want. And when all you want is to play blues better than anyone else—or take heroin . . . that, dismayingly, has an appeal to those of us who struggle with our feelings, needs, and desires every day.”1

Camus was not cool, nor was he an existentialist: he was often at loggerheads with people like Jean-Paul Sartre. And The Stranger is as heady as you make it to be.

In other words: I’d misunderstood what Camus was on about.

By the way, Camus didn’t even consider himself to be a philosopher.

Camus never saw himself as a philosopher, much less a Christian. In 1946, on the day after his arrival in New York, he was asked at a press conference about his philosophical position, to which he responded that “his philosophy consisted of doubts and uncertainties.”

Setting the record straight

This book is a passionate and in-depth tome on Albert Camus’s life about certain matters. It’s hard to draw in reins with people who are like Camus, people who are freewheeling thinkers, people who truly question matters.

Robert Emmet Meagher has managed to not only write fairly lucidly, but also sprawling book about Albert Camus, about half a century after he first discovered him.

Emmet Meagher states his writing strategy plainly in his introduction: to let Camus speak for himself and increase the number of his readers. I think he has performed wonderfully in these regards.

On Camus visiting the USA for the first time, in 1946:

Camus had been invited as a cultural ambassador from a broken France to a victorious United States. Heralded as the boldest young writer of his generation, the expectation was that he would share with New Yorkers his own engaged, insider’s précis of current French philosophy, literature, and theater. This was not what they got. They didn’t know the man they had invited. Those who had read The Stranger found themselves confronted with a stranger. Camus later explained that what he most admired about Meursault was that he refused to lie. The same was true of Meursault’s creator. New York had invited an existentialist and found themselves confronted by a moralist. Instead of a French Hemingway, they got an Algerian Jeremiah.

Three years after his death, in a review entitled “The Ideal Husband,” Susan Sontag commented that “Kafka arouses pity and terror, Joyce admiration, Proust and Gide respect, but no modern writer that I can think of, except Camus, has aroused love. His death in 1960 was felt as a personal loss by the whole literate world.”

Having finished this brilliant book, I will read more by Camus.

Early days

Camus studied ancient (Greek) philosophy from his home after near-death from tuberculosis at age seventeen.

In his earliest writings we see Camus wondering and worrying about human nature, our humanity, its light side and its dark side. “To correct a natural indifference,” he once explained, “I was placed halfway between poverty and the sun. Poverty kept me from thinking all was well under the sun and in history; the sun taught me that history was not everything.”

It is important to understand that Camus never wanted to particularly fraternise with ‘intellectuals’, nor any kind of elite. The following paragraph truly drives this home:

For the seventeen-year-old Camus, mortality was no casual truism. If not before, from that time on he “thought mortal thoughts.” He had learned an essential truth, a “noble truth,” and would live it. He carried his death around with him and felt its presence with every breath. Philosophy, Camus once commented, used to teach us how to die, but now it only teaches us how to think. Modern philosophy, all too often, is an effete, low-stakes parlor game, for members only. Not so for Camus, who felt uncomfortable in the presence of French intellectuals. “Uncomfortable! That’s hardly the word for it,” commented Camus’s close friend Germaine Brée. “Camus came to feel almost physically distressed in their presence.”


Emmet Meagher’s tendency to dig into true meaning of words is both engaging and deeply interesting. It’s not just fiddling about in a nerdy, solipsistic way - which can, sadly, often be the case with experts - but needed to understand how Camus engaged himself not only with the world, but also, for example, to understand how he picked titles for books and papers.

In the ancient Greek philosophical tradition, from which both Augustine and Camus drank deeply, happiness is not only a different word—eudaimonia (eujaimovnia) in Greek, beatitudo in Latin; more critically, it is a very different reality from what we ordinarily reckon it to be. The idea of human happiness and the idea of human nature are so intertwined in Greek philosophy as to be inseparable. Put simply, happiness is the full realization of human nature. Happiness is human being, the end or telos (tevlos), goal, of human becoming. Happiness lies in reaching that goal, crossing the human finish line, as it were. But who is it that draws that line? If we are to understand human nature as the Greeks understood it, we must consider their word for nature, physis (fuvsi), which describes the full wondrous arc of a thing’s coming-to-be, from seed to flower and from flower to fruit, from first breath to last gasp. Aristotle, on multiple occasions, cites the example of the acorn and the oak tree as an illustration of the coming-to-be of what potentially already is. The acorn, after all, is from the start somehow an oak tree. It is “on its way,” “a work in progress,” we might say. The poet Mary Oliver makes the same point when she writes, “Is it not incredible, that in the acorn something has hidden an entire oak tree?” 11 Plant an acorn and all you will ever get is an oak tree. Not a much larger acorn and certainly not an elephant or an owl. Quite evidently, it is the nature, or in the nature, of an acorn to become and be an oak tree. In Physics, Aristotle contrasts this with the planting of an artifact, such as a bed. A bed, planted in the ground, will eventually rot and revert to its prior state as wood. Never will it sprout another bed. We speak of a living thing’s nature, then, as what it is in its full fruition, “for a thing is more properly said to be what it is when it has attained to fulfilment than when it exists potentially.” 12 A bed has a form but not a nature. This is because, in Aristotle’s terms, there is no “being-at-work” in it, no energeia (ejnevrgeia), from which we get the word energy.

I also like this paragraph:

In ancient Greek, ojivda (oida) means “I know.” Oida, however, is actually the perfect form of the verb to see. In other words, to say “I know” is literally to say “I have seen.” That is how we know anything, by having seen it. Seeing isn’t believing, contrary to the common saying. Seeing is knowing.


Camus finished writing The Stranger at twenty-six years of age. This book details not only brings out The Stranger in full colour, but throws it both against how it’s aged, how it was received, and, perhaps most importantly, how Camus treated it.

Meursault, like Sisyphus, is an absurd hero, yes, but this makes him suitable for only very selective emulation. Camus made very clear what he affirmed in Meursault, what he found most admirable in him: . . . he refuses to lie. To lie is not only to say what isn’t true. It is also and above all, to say more than is true, and, as far as the human heart is concerned, to express more than one feels.

The best thing about Albert Camus and the Human Crisis is how Emmet Meagher both unfurls and shows Camus as extremely complex, without making things complicated. I think he wanted to paint Camus in not one, but many different shades and colours, which is as it should be; Camus was human, he was a person, he was many things.

As Camus said so often, he was pessimistic with regard to the human condition but optimistic regarding his fellow human beings. The grounds for this optimism lay in the solid, irrefutable first truth revealed in the act of rebellion: “I rebel—therefore we exist.” From here, Camus could go on. “The world I live in disgusts me,” Camus confessed in 1948, “but I feel myself in solidarity with the suffering people in it.” He would cling to that solidarity as if his life depended on it.

Meursault, like Sisyphus, is an absurd hero, yes, but this makes him suitable for only very selective emulation. Camus made very clear what he affirmed in Meursault, what he found most admirable in him: . . . he refuses to lie. To lie is not only to say what isn’t true. It is also and above all, to say more than is true, and, as far as the human heart is concerned, to express more than one feels.

Emmet Meagher not only lays out complex theories in simple language and structure, but creates beauty:

Imagining Meursault as a dog is actually not an absurd conceit. In a brief conversation I once had with James Watson, one of the team that discovered the double helix structure of DNA, he remarked that most everything anyone needs to know about life can be learned from dogs: courage, companionship, cleverness, loyalty, honesty, and love. He spoke with such enthusiasm and affection for man’s best friend that I wondered if, at that point in his life, shortly before a death he knew was coming, he might have preferred canine to human companionship. Dogs are everything Watson said of them, and Camus might have had similar regard for his dog Kirk. Like Meursault, dogs make the most of every moment. The moment is what they have, where they live. Dogs would be confused if offered a promotion, asked about marriage, or expected to behave at a funeral. They understand loyalty, but not morality. Once they become your pal, your enemies are theirs. It’s not a matter of racism or misogyny. Indeed, as strange as it may seem, Part One, or much of it, falls comfortably into place if we imagine Meursault with four legs. All that changes, however, on a sandy, sweltering beach, when four deafening shots shatter the illusion.

Søren Kierkegaard, in The Sickness Unto Death, defines the moment of faith, when every trace of despair is uprooted from the self, in these words: “In relating itself to itself and in willing to be itself, the self rests transparently in the power that established it.” In other words, in the extended moment of self-consciousness, the moment of confession, when I not only see who I am but also will who I am, affirm who I am, I am grounded in the transcendent power, the reality, that created me. We are not mistaken in hearing these words echoed in Meursault’s moment of confession, his moment of truth, when he sees his life, affirms his life, accepts his death, and embraces the indifferent power that established him and his world.

There is also The Plague.

The Plague, too, is a book designed to speak not only to Camus’s generation but to future generations for whom the mid-20th century and the “brown plague” would be ancient history. It was, quite simply, “done to last forever,” though Camus would never have been so bold as to utter such a boast. And he didn’t have to. The book has spoken for itself. The fact that today it is a best seller, more than seventy-five years later, in a country which Camus only visited once and briefly, tells us all we need to know about how and why it was written. We find ourselves where Camus found himself. He knew we would, human nature being what it is. It is no accident that The Plague speaks directly to the current coronavirus plague, as well as to the murderous, hate- and ignorance-driven pestilences that infect the body politic. The Plague is, after all, about the “human crisis” he warned us of in his 1946 New York address. It was about what he had witnessed in Europe—I had the disease myself and saw others suffering from it—and what he saw was already on its way to our shores. He told us as much: He knew what those jubilant crowds [think Times Square on VE Day] did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up in rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.

There is beauty in seemingly simple paragraphs:

In The Plague, friendship emerged as the morally compelling bond between all human beings, echoing a humanistic tradition that resonated through ancient literature from Gilgamesh to Homer, Euripides, and Augustine. Camus had a special gift for forming and honoring friendships, and he found it excruciating when trust between friends broke down.

Weil Weil Weil and Plato

It’s breathtaking to read of how Simone Weil, who died a few years before Camus discovered her work, affected Camus.

Once again, as he had at various points in his life, Camus was evolving. In the next several years, he turned inward and began to craft two works—The Rebel and The Just—that would make him an outcast and cost him many friends. At the same time, he discovered a new friend who helped light his way, an unlikely soul mate who confirmed him in the path he was on. Regrettably, she had already died, which did not diminish her effect on him, “for one can feel as close to a dead person as to a living one.” She was, in Camus’s eyes, “the only great spirit of our times.” In her thirty-four years, Simone Weil had been many things: a prodigious scholar of ancient literature and philosophy, a champion of the working class, a veteran of the anarchist Durutti Column in the Spanish Civil War, a factory worker, and a religious mystic. At age ten she announced she was a Bolshevik and at age twenty-eight she experienced her first mystical experience. Like Camus she contracted tuberculosis, rejected Marxism and the oppressive Russian state, and envisioned a nonviolent revolution that would preserve the peace, establish both liberty and social justice, honor the dignity of work, and respect the needs of the soul. Weil, a Jew, and Camus, a “pagan,” acknowledged the sacred and were drawn to it. Each of them lingered on the threshold of the Catholic church but in the end declined baptism.

There’s also Plato:

Camus, too, in his own version of Platonic despair over the murderous folly all around him, took time out to recover his health, clear his mind, and restore his soul. His widest travels took him to the United States, Canada, and South America; closer to home he returned to Algeria and vacationed in Provence, where he would eventually find a home and his final resting place. Meanwhile he was writing what he saw as his greatest work, the one he felt most closely resembled himself. Here, too, he was following, perhaps unwittingly, in the footsteps of Plato. Neither Camus nor Plato ever founded, ruled, or helped govern a polity of any sort. What each of them did do was found a city, as it were, of the spirit, a city of ideas and words that would likely never take shape in a republic or prevail in politics but might help prevent or forestall the extinction of all that is human in us. If indeed wisdom is a matter of recollection, the Republic of Plato and Camus’s The Rebel remind us of our common humanity and of all that we owe to each other on that account.


This is a remarkable, mind-expanding, and clear insight into Camus’s work. Be sure, this is not a biography: it doesn’t cover details on Camus’s interactions with philosophers, delve into chronological details, or claim to cover all sorts of tracks. Instead, it does bring forward how Camus was a human being, how he seemed to be unable to separate being a human from being deeply interested in humanity. Camus also put a lot of weight into saying he didn’t know things, that humans can’t always be paragons of reason, and that we should allow non-reason into our lives; it’s unavoidable.

Camus’s practical thoughts of death and burial suggest no death wish, but only the ever-presence of death he had lived with since his youth. It’s a matter of mortal wisdom—what Euripides called “thinking mortal thoughts.” Camus had also given thought to his funeral. In the last year of his life he explained to a friend that at the funeral of anyone in the village of Lourmarin, the church bell tolls. He added to this that at his funeral he wanted the bell in the town hall, not the church, to toll. In this instruction we may see a reflection of d’Arrast, who decided to carry the stone to the cook’s hearth rather than deliver it to the church, as was the tradition, the hearth where he had been welcomed and found happiness. Camus had a special gift and craving and appreciation for friendship. The human embrace was what brought him joy and consolation. He gave it freely and honored it when offered to him. He also gave it to his readers, his silent, unseen friends from afar, distant not only in space but also in time. He had known not only intimate friendship but its loss and, at times, its betrayal. The car crash that killed him also killed his most dear friend Michel Gallimard. Friends, we recall Plato writing, have all things in common. I can testify to the sustaining friendship he still extends to his readers and can think of no more appropriate words with which to end these reflections on his life and work than words that Euripides left two and a half millennia ago to his readers whom he would never meet: ‘The good and decent man, even if he lives in some distant place, and even though I never set eyes on him, I count as friend.’

  1. Rinaldi, Karen. 2019. It’s Great to Suck at Something. Atria Books.